Saturday, the Columbia Gorge Discovery Center screens a film on the Dust Bowl Troubador’s Oregon odyssey.
In 1941, folk icon Woody Guthrie took a corporate job. The Bonneville Power Administration hired him to write songs about public works along the Columbia River. A local filmmaker recently completed a new documentary version of the story.
Bill Murlin was doing audio/video work for the BPA’s public affairs office in the early 80s when he ran across a file.
“And in the file it said Woody Guthrie worked for BPA. Whoa! I’m in the same place!,” Murlin said.
Murlin was a big folk music fan and musician in his own right. He had no idea a populist like Guthrie had worked as a paid pitchman.
“So I started researching it, and discovered that he wrote a whole sheaf of music, hired by BPA for a particular purpose: write music for a movie,” Murlin said.
The 1948 film, ‘The Columbia’ was intended to spread the story of the mammoth public works project that changed the face of the Northwest, setting up public power systems and wide-scale irrigation. BPA wanted Guthrie to show the world that the project was making a difference in people’s lives.
Murlin was intrigued by the songs, but ran into resistance at BPA. This material had been buried since the 50s, when a wave of McCarthyism clashed with the leftist politics personified by Woody Guthrie.
By 1984, he’d convinced BPA the Guthrie archive would be an important addition to the agency’s 50th birthday celebration. He got the green light to chase down the original acetate recordings. Murlin says finding the songs was a huge surprise.
“Woody Guthrie never commercially recorded the song ‘Roll On Columbia.’ There was the recording. We got a couple of songs that had never been published before — ever! — in any form,” Murlin said.
Murlin got in touch with the owner of a small folk record label in Portland, Michael O’Rourke, to talk through a plan.
“Bill called me up one day and told me about his amazing discoveries. He wanted advice, I guess you’d say about how to get the material out there,” Michael O’Rourke recalled.
The two of them figured out which record label should distribute the recordings.
“The songs were written at a time when Woody Guthrie was coming to national prominence. He was isnpired while he was working here in the Northwest, by the grandeur of it all, that the cause of public power was alive and well and being promoted here. For whatever reason, maybe BPA cracking the whip, resulted in his most productive time, and some of his best songs.”
Bill Murlin says some of Guthrie’s songs from this period haven’t held up as well over time.
“He talks about the Indian wars on the banks of the Columbia — he wouldn’t have known a thing about that,” Murlin explained.
Years after the project, Guthrie said there were portions of Northwest history he hadn’t fully understood and, in hindsight, should have written differently. Also, the environmental changes launched by the damming of the Columbia weren’t apparent during the 40s.
Guthrie’s decision to take a job writing promotional songs - some of which the BPA edited - runs contrary to his image as the bard of the common man. But Michael O’Rourke says the Columbia songs are important to hear and understand.
“I think you have to put it in historical context. Guthrie had just come through the Dust Bowl and saw the suffering and experienced it himself. I think the idea that the electricity from the dams was going to provide poor people with electricity, but also provide opportunities for jobs — I’m sure that resonated with Woody Guthrie,” O’Rourke explained.
O’Rourke adds that the early administrators of the BPA were public power trailblazers, doing takeovers of private power companies to bolster their system. Guthrie probably felt a lot of political common ground.
O’Rourke became so engrossed with the songs and their history that he started working on a documentary about them. (That original documentary aired on Oregon Public Broadcasting). In 2009, O’Rourke expanded the radio documentary into a film. He’ll present an expanded cut at the Gorge Discovery Center event.
On the Web:
Library of Congress: Woody Guthrie info
Library of Congress: Guthrie Timeline